20 Things Everyone Remembers From France ’98

Posted: June 8, 2018 in Uncategorized
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France ’98 never seems to get much love when great World Cups are talked about, even within the confines of its own decade. Perhaps it lacks the iconography of Italia ’90, with Gazza’s tears and Roger Milla’s corner flag wiggling, or the colour and otherness of the competition’s first foray to the United States. Yet this was a tournament loaded with superb football, wonderful goals and a number of stone cold classic matches. It had style, it had grace, Rita Hayworth gave good face.

Actually that was Vogue, by Madonna, but France ’98 was still really, really good as well. It was a parade of a number of the game’s modern greats, all at the peak of their powers. How’s this for a roll call? Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Salas, Baggio, Del Piero, both Laudrups, Zidane, Henry, Stoichkov, Okocha, Raul, Scifo, Bergkamp, Seedorf, Klinsmann, Stojkovic, Savicevic, Valderrama, Beckham, Hagi, Batistuta, Veron, Ortega, Boban, Prosinecki, Nakata. Even Hamilton Ricard was there!

Here’s a fairly predictable countdown of 20 of the tournament’s most memorable moments…

20) Brazil’s Airport Kickabout

The greatest football ad of all time? Just before the tournament kicked off, Nike’s TV promo (directed by none other than John ‘bullet time’ Woo) showcased the favourites indulging in a bit of jogo bonito at the airport before heading to France. Enormous fun, though tinged with poignancy when you know how things turn out. Missing an airport penalty would prove the least of Ronaldo’s worries, but at least he’d eventually get his happy ending four years later. The same could not be said for stepover king and newly-minted world’s most expensive player Denilson, who would never soar to such heights again.  Poor old Ronnie didn’t have any better luck when he went back for another go.

19) Chilavert’s Free Kick

Paraguay took a strong side to France ’98, but their undisputed star was goalkeeper and captain Jose Luis Chilavert, whose penalty and free kick taking heroics had made him a star of many a clip compilation VHS on these shores. ‘El Bulldog’ would come tantalisingly close to becoming the first ‘keeper to score at a World Cup Finals when he whipped a free kick over the Bulgarian wall, only to see it just clip the crossbar of Zdravko ‘not Bobby Mihailov’ Zdravkov.

18) When Robbie Met Martin

Robbie Williams was inexplicably ubiquitous during the late 1990s, and the BBC sought to exploit his popularity when they invited the robust Port Vale fan onto their pundits’ sofa…only for noted pop critic Martin O’Neill to tear him to shreds with a savage backhanded compliment…

17) Tommy Boyd’s Own Goal

Poor Scotland. They actually gave the reigning champions a half decent game in the opening match, a John Collins penalty cancelling out Cesar Sampaio’s opener for Brazil. Then, with 15 minutes to go, the Roadrunner-like Cafu got in behind the defence and while Jim Leighton saved his shot, the rebound cannoned into luckless left back Tommy Boyd and into the net. Despite the pleas of Del Amitri, Scotland would go home too soon after all. They haven’t been back.

16) Zamorano Belts Out the Anthem

England players not singing the national anthem is one of those things guaranteed to rile the Fourth Estate, like buying your mum a sink or having the cheek to eat breakfast the day after not winning an award. While it’s hard to get too excited about a moribund dirge like God Save The Queen though, the Chilean national anthem is a belter – captain and talisman Ivan Zamorano’s lusty roaring of the anthem before Chile’s second round tie with Brazil displayed one man’s terrifying, all-consuming love for his country.

15) Romania’s Dye Job

Qualifying for the last 16 with a game to spare, Romania celebrated with a spot of b(l)onding – every member of the squad bleaching their hair. Back in the BBC studio, Jimmy Hill hailed this as a genius means of players being able to pick each other out more easily. The broadcast essentially stopped in its tracks while everyone else in the room tried to work out if Hill was kidding or not. He wasn’t. ‘What I said about Romanians’ hair made some critics and viewers doubt my sanity,’ Hill would lament. ‘But I think that this reaction showed a basic ignorance of our national sport.’ You tell ’em, Jim.

14) ‘The Mother of All Soccer Matches’

That was the rallying cry from US Federation Head Hank Steinbrecher when the World Cup draw threw longtime political enemies the USA and Iran together. If Barry Davies’ suggestion that this was a game ‘they thought would never happen’ felt like hyperbole, tensions and security fears were nevertheless inevitably heightened in the build-up to the game.

Both sets of players sought to play peacemaker beforehand, exchanging bouquets of flowers. The contest itself, essentially one to avoid the wooden spoon in Group F, was a surprisingly fast, thrilling affair. Iran’s Hamid Estili opened the scoring with a looping header before dynamite teen Mehdi Mahdavikia sprinted away on the counter to wrap things up. The US could only bundle in a consolation through Brian McBride. There were still some who sought to make political capital out of the game – Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of the “bitter taste of defeat” felt by “strong and arrogant” opponents.

The real story however, was Iran’s first ever World Cup victory, and the dancing in the streets of Tehran that followed.

13) Kevin Keegan – Soothsayer

Keggy hopefully isn’t a gambling man – his forecasts merrily jinxed England throughout the competition. “There’s only one team going to win this now and that’s England,” he declared after Michael Owen’s late equaliser against Romania, just before Dan Petrescu outmuscled Graeme Le Saux to win it for the team in yellow. Two games later he was asked by Brian Moore: “Kevin, you know him (David Batty) better than anyone, do you back him to score, quickly, yes or no?”

“Yes” answered Kevin definitively. “Oh no!”

There was only one place to go for a man with such prescient instincts – within a year, he was in charge of the England team himself.

12) Njanka’s Wondergoal

Not much joy for the Indomitable Lions in France, the memories of Roger Milla and Italia ’90 feeling increasingly distant. They did, however, enjoy one delirious moment. Little-known Pierre Njanka picked the ball up in his own half and started slaloming past Austrians as if he were en piste in the Alps. Swerving past one, then another as he gathered momentum, he then jinked into the box, foxing another defender as he did so, before curling a dream of a shot into the top corner. One of the goals of the tournament for sure, even if Austria’s stoppage time equaliser meant it counted for little.

For Njanka, then playing for Olympic Mvolye in his homeland, the goal was a life-changer, earning him a move to Europe, where he’d feature for Neuchatel and Strasbourg among many other clubs.

11) Croatia destroy Germany

The wonderful Croatian side of the mid-to-late 1990s never quite enjoyed the success they deserved. The technical yet dizzyingly creative football Miroslav Blažević’s side played was perhaps to be expected given the presence of Prosinecki and Boban, with prominent of chin Golden Boot winner Davor Sukur the chief beneficiary. The Croats had flown under the radar until the quarter finals, where they had a chance for revenge against European Champions (and their own Euro ’96 conquerors) Germany. The German team was ageing and divided, and hadn’t convinced at any stage, but actually made the better start to the game and looked in control until Christian Wörns slammed into Sukur with an appalling challenge just before half time and received a straight red card. Ruthless Croatia set about ripping them apart. Robert Jarni’s low thunderbolt kicked things off, before Goran Vlaovic and Sukur finished the job late on. For the Germans it felt like the end of an era.

10) France’s Unsung Hero

Lillian Thuram had really come into his own the season before the tournament, impressing with his rapid, energetic displays at the back for Parma. He would excel at right back during the World Cup, but few could have imagined the impact he’d have on the semi final. With the hosts trailing 1-0 to Croatia, Thuram found himself in what we’re legally obliged to term’ nosebleed territory’, seizing on a loose ball to power in the equaliser, his very first goal for his country. If that was unexpected, what followed was miraculous – Thuram again bolting forward, cutting inside and curling a 20-yarder into the bottom corner. Immediately submerged under a mass of blue bodies, the man from Guadeloupe had become the unlikeliest of saviours. Thuram would amass 142 international caps. He never scored for France again.

9) Bilic Robs Blanc of His Moment

Not every member of Les Bleus enjoyed themselves that night in Paris, however. Laurent Blanc, wise old man of the French defence, saw his only chance of playing in a World Cup final ripped away from him when the villainous Slaven Bilic feigned being headbutted, leading to referee Jose-Maria Garcia-Aranda issuing Blanc a straight red card – the first of Blanc’s career. Sheepish, Bilic went over to apologise at the end of the game. “He knew he’d deprived me of the final,” Blanc said in the aftermath, “and I thought, ‘maybe I should hit him now’.” Thankfully he didn’t, but he was out of the World Cup final. And that’s how Franck Leboeuf won the World Cup. Not that he liked to talk about it…

8) Beckham’s Free Kick

Few had as miserable a time in France as David Beckham. Even before the red card in St Etienne that would lead to him being burned in effigy in his own land that summer, the 23-year-old had suffered the ignominy of being publicly criticised and dropped by Glenn Hoddle, having started all of England’s qualifiers. Restored to the team for the crucial final group game against Colombia, Beckham had a point to prove – and did so emphatically with this ripsnorter of a set piece – his first international goal.

7) Spain 2-3 Nigeria

A bona fide World Cup classic. The two favourites to qualify from Group D threw everything they had at each other, the momentum shifting with each fresh twist. Spain led through Fernando Hierro’s low free kick. Mutiu Adepoju equalised for Nigeria. The Super Eagles then went ahead when Andoni Zubizaretta, one of the oldest players at the finals, inexplicably funnelled a nothing ball from Lawal into his own net. Spain then levelled through a magnificent, Mark Hughes-style volley from Raul, the Real Madrid marksman carefully letting Hierro’s brilliant long pass drop over his shoulder before rifling across Peter Rufai into the opposite corner. The last word fell to the excellent Sunday Oliseh, whose first time 25-yard effort seemed to astonish even himself as it arrowed into the net. Nigeria topped the group. Fancied Spain, despite pumping Bulgaria 6-1 in their final game, went out in the group stage. Would the Spanish ever live up to their billing?

6) Baggio’s Redemption

The previous World Cup had ended with Roberto Baggio – then arguably the best footballer on the planet – missing a penalty that cost Italy the trophy. His career duly unravelled. Unfairly vilified by fans, and with a high profile move to Milan quickly turning sour, the rate of his decline was alarming. Being cast aside to lowly Bologna, however, was the best thing that could’ve happened to him, and he rediscovered his love of the game, playing perhaps the finest football of his career as he steered the Rossoblu into Europe and himself into an initially sceptical Cesare Maldini’s squad just in time.

In Italy’s first game, the Azzurri trailed to Chile when Baggio tried to clip in a ball that pinged into the arm of defender Roland Fuentes at close range. The dodgiest of penalties was awarded, but there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to atone for USA ’94. Tension engulfed Bordeaux’s Parc Lescure, and Baggio’s penalty was not the most convincing, Tapia getting more than fingertips to the low kick. But it was good enough. Italy were level. Baggio was far too cool to Stuart Pearce it with his celebration, but the exorcism was no less powerful. Baggio was back.

5) The Reggae Boyz

The story of Jamaica’s road to France ’98 is extraordinary, and you can read about it in Christopher Weir’s tremendous piece for These Football Times. An awkward mix of cast-offs from various levels of English football and undiscovered gems still based in Jamaica, The Reggae Boyz, under eccentric Brazilian Rene Simoes, had a mix of speed and brawn that allowed them to power their way into becoming perhaps the competition’s unlikeliest qualifiers.

This would not quite be a feelgood story of Cool Runnings proportions however. The squad all but combusted on reaching the finals, bubbling tensions finally running over after the squad assembled to watch a Channel 4 documentary about themselves, only to find it spotlighted serious divisions in the squad between the British-based and Jamaican-based players.

Performances were mixed; there was a 5-0 hammering by Argentina, underlining the mismatch between Gabriel Batistuta and Premier League own goal king Frank Sinclair, but there was also a proud victory over Japan. The high point, however, was surely their brief moment of parity against Croatia. With the team trailing to Sukur’s strike, the livewire Ricardo Gardner fizzed over a tremendous ball, met emphatically by the head of one of the nicest men in football, Robbie Earle, to make it 1-1. Croatia would triumph, but for that shining moment, it felt like the whole world was Jamaican.

4) The Blanco Bounce

Nothing guarantees sporting immortality like a signature move. The Ali Shuffle. The Cruyff Turn. Mexico vs South Korea was not an encounter that seemed likely to birth such an innovation. When a maverick like Cuauhtemoc Blanco is around however, anything is possible. The volatile midfielder has done it all, from giving the term ‘pitch rage‘ to MLS to successfully running for office in his homeland. In Lyon, he announced his genius to the world. Blocked off by two defenders near the touchline with seemingly no place to go, he improvised, catching the ball between his ankles and pogoing between the befuddled duo. It came to nothing, but all you could do was marvel at the audacity – and almost break your ankle trying to recreate it in the playground. Less feted but equally as brilliant was the ludicrous ‘flying carpet’ horizontal volley with the outside of his boot he scored in Mexico’s very next game. What a man.

3) England 2-2 Argentina

A tie unmatched for excitement and tempo. England’s failure to win Group G put them on a collision course with their old foes from South America, and the two sides went all out from the first whistle in what was a breathless first half. After 10 minutes it was 1-1 as the teams exchanged dodgy penalties. After 15 minutes, Michael Owen had scored that goal, beautifully controlling Beckham’s through ball, turning on the afterburners, finding the top corner. Paul Scholes missed a golden opportunity to make it three, then a supremely well-worked Argentine free kick allowed Javier Zanetti to smartly equalise.

The second half was in essence a weird sequel – almost a different game, but no less compelling. The match had hardly kicked off again when Danish ref Kim Milton Nielsen produced a red card for David Beckham, the naive bluebottle flicking a leg into Diego Simeone’s Venus Flytrap. Hoddle, for all his faults, was a meticulous planner and had prepared for the possibility of being reduced to 10-men, and England defended superbly. They even seemed to have snatched the win against all the odds when Sol Campbell headed in a corner, only to realise to their horror that Argentina were playing on and streaming towards the England goal, Campbell’s header disallowed for the trifling matter of Alan Shearer elbowing Carlos Roa in the face.

Penalties then, and the same old story. Quickly Kevin, etc. Argentina’s players celebrated their victory by mocking and gesturing at their vanquished foes from their team bus. For Hoddle, there was nothing else to do but melt into Ray Stubbs’ arms.

Roa had already signalled his intention to quit football ahead of the millennium, when he was sure the world would end. After this game you wanted to join him, as football surely didn’t get more dramatic, more exciting, more draining than this. It had peaked…

2) Bergkamp vs Argentina

…or so we thought. It would actually peak in Argentina’s next game, the quarter final against a brilliant Dutch side. Another incident packed encounter unfolded, with each side scoring a well-worked team goal and each side having a man sent off. Extra time loomed. Then it happened. Dennis Bergkamp had had a poor game by his standards. By rights he shouldn’t even have been playing, somehow getting away with a blatant stamp on Sinisa Mihajlovic in their last 16 win over Yugoslavia. Now however, in injury time, he tracked Frank De Boer’s raking 40-yard pass. The first touch killed the ball dead. The second sent Ayala off to the wrong fire. The third, with the outside of his left boot, curved the ball away from Roa and into the bottom corner. Majesty. My words can’t do it justice. Rob Smyth‘s can.

1) Where’s Ronaldo?

It was supposed to be the coronation of Il Fenomeno. The best player in the world. He’d got strong and stronger as the tournament progressed, with at least one goal in each round. Now all that remained was to fire the Selecao to victory in the World Cup final.

Yet when the team sheets were circulated at the Stade de France on 12th July, Ronaldo’s name was nowhere to be seen, causing scenes of pandemonium in the press box. Nobody does confusion like John Motson, and he practically malfunctioned here: “I’ve never seen anything like this in my career,” he gasped.

The plot thickened when a second Brazil XI went round with Ronaldo back in, as if the first one had been a mirage. But something was badly wrong. The specifics remain cloudy, but what is clear is that Ronaldo had some kind of seizure at the team hotel. He was in no condition to play, but somebody – it’s unclear who – decreed that he should. He subsequently sloped around the final glassy eyed and zombified as shell-shocked Brazil were swept aside by the hosts. Ronaldo was inconsolable, broken.

France’s own star man had endured the opposite kind of tournament. Their hopes rested squarely on the shoulders of Zinedine Zidane, centrepiece of a terrific Juventus side, but he had yet to really produce for Les Bleus. Perhaps fazed by the burden he was expected to carry, he got himself sent off in only France’s second game, for (sharp intake of breath) an act of wanton violence, stamping on Saudi Arabia’s Fuad Amin. Perhaps having to forge a path without Zidane was the best thing that could have happened to him and the team, a mutual liberation. He was back in for the semi final, and by the final, on an altogether higher plane than anyone else. Half a second ahead in thought and deed, Zidane’s almost spectral runs from corners essentially decided the contest by half time. This was Zidane the commander, the dominator, finally comfortable in the role of main man. The final marked a passing of the torch. A match that was supposed to cement the Ronaldo era had ended it. It was Zidane’s time. He’d only get better from here.

The French too could finally embrace their hero. As thousands thronged the Champs Elysee and fireworks painted the Parisian sky, the Arc de Triomphe beamed a projection of the number 10’s face, alongside just two words. ‘Merci, Zizou’.


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